James Clear’s Atomic Habits, published in 2018, has been very influential in my life and I have implemented some of the points he made in his book into my life, and they have worked wonders to change my habits. Hence, I would like to share those points with you to help you change your life and habits as well. If you are looking to change your life, I recommend you read this book (you can buy it here), and then implement these 10 points below into your life. Here we go!
1. The Compound Effect: Don’t judge your progress too soon or too often
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.
2. Goals vs. Systems: Focus on processes of continuous improvement
For decades, the self improvement world has had a sick obsession with goals. Endless self help authors have repeated the same advice. They say we should set goals, write them down, have bigger goals, set smarter goals, and so on.
However, the idea of goals has many hidden problems:
- “Winners and losers have the same goals,” as James Clear says. For example, when 100 swimmers compete at the Olympics, they all have the same goal of winning the gold medal. This means simply having a goal does not make the difference between winners and losers.
- Goals make us less happy. A big list of ambitious goals often makes us imagine that happiness lies after some imaginary future finish line. Unfortunately, this can make us feel like a failure for most of our lives, since we will always have unfulfilled goals.
- Goals can sabotage long-term success. Goals can be great for providing short-term motivation, but what happens after we achieve our goal? Then we can often lose our drive and our lives get off track again.
So forget goals, and focus on systems. A system is the process we must follow to make progress in any area of our lives.
3. Identity: Create lasting change from the inside out
On January 1st, at the beginning of every year, many people try to change something about themselves. Maybe they want to quit smoking, lose weight or be a better parent. But why do so many of these New Year’s Resolutions fail to stick? Why does it feel so hard to continue a new positive habit? Maybe it’s because we start at the wrong place…
James Clear says there are 3 layers to personal change:
- Outcome. This is where most of us usually start when creating a new habit. We use our willpower to throw away the cigarettes, buy some broccoli or read a book to our child. Yet over time, our motivation seems to fade and we return to our old bad habits.
- Process. One layer deeper, this is about HOW we achieve the outcomes we want. If we are clever enough, then we may be able to maneuver ourselves into continuing a positive habit for a longer time.
- Identity. This is the deepest layer of personal development. It’s about who you believe that you are or at least who you want to be seen as. It includes your values, beliefs and group identifications. The most powerful new habits start here, from the inside out.
4. The Habit Loop: All our habits have a cue, craving, response and reward
At the core of this book is The 4-Step Habit Loop:
All our habits repeat these four steps every single time. For example, every morning John wakes up, picks up his phone and responds to some new messages from his friends.
- The cue that begins the habit is John waking up. Every day he wakes up and thinks of checking his phone almost automatically.
- Then he feels a craving to see if his friends have contacted him.
- Then he responds by picking up the phone and typing some messages.
Finally, his reward is the feeling of social connection or belonging. That slight increase in mood ensures John will continue repeating this habit every morning.
5. Cues: Trigger good habits more often and discourage bad ones
The first step of any habit is a cue. A cue is anything that triggers a habit loop for us. It may be a thing, an environment, a specific time of day, a person, etc. For example, keeping a bowl of washed fruits on our kitchen counter can be a visible cue that helps us remember to eat fruits more often.
How can we take control of the cues that trigger our habits? In Atomic Habits, James Clear shares a few effective tactics:
- Make a Habits Scorecard. Our habits tend to be automatic, which means they can often be invisible to us. So the first step is to become aware of what all our daily habits are by making a Habits Scorecard. Just make a list of everything you usually do in a day, then rate whether each habit is positive, negative or neutral. Think about which cue may trigger each habit.
- Reconstruct Your Environment. This is about make the right cues very visible, and the wrong ones invisible. For example, if you find that checking your phone in the morning makes you less productive, then hide your phone in another room where it’s out of reach. Or if you want to become a better artist, then keep your sketchbook somewhere you will see it daily and not hidden in a drawer.
- Write Implementation Intentions. This is a concrete statement that lets us design a cue for each positive new habit we want to adopt. Many studies have demonstrated this technique is very effective. Implementation intentions follow the formula of “When-Then.” For example, you may write “WHEN I come home from work, THEN I will put on my running shoes and begin stretching.”
6. Cravings: Connect good habits with enjoyment
A craving is the expectation that we will feel something good or pleasurable after we complete an action. For example, we sometimes crave ice cream because eating sugary foods causes chemical reactions to take place inside us like dopamine flooding our brain.
How can we leverage our cravings to help us create positive new habits? James Clear offers these pointers:
- Connect Incentives to Difficult Tasks. An incentive is something you find easy, enjoyable or pleasant to do. You can use incentives to help you accomplish the difficult or painful tasks that you need to do. When you use an incentive during or after a task, James calls it “Temptation Bundling.” When you use an incentive just before a task, he calls it a “Motivation Ritual.”
- Become Part of a Community. One of our most powerful psychological drives is to be accepted by the tribe around us. If you surround yourself with a community that already finds certain behaviors normal, then you are more likely to do those behaviors too. For example, if you are spending more time with health nuts who are drinking green smoothies every day, then you will naturally be more likely to do that too.
- List the Costs of Bad Habits. If there are any habits you want to break, then you should list all the downsides of the habit. Keep this list somewhere you can see it often. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, then list all the short, medium and long term downsides of it. Including the yearly cost of the cigarettes, the potential smell on your breath and clothes, the feeling of being tired or out-of-breath, etc.
7. Responses: Make positive habits easier to do and bad ones harder
A response is the action you perform during the habit. It comes after the cue and craving, but before the reward. How can we make good habits easier to perform and bad habits more difficult? Here are some ways:
- Make Habits Easy to Start. The most important thing is to keep practicing your new habits daily so you can benefit from long-term improvement. So try having very easy minimum goals for each daily habit. For example, you only need to read one page, do one pushup or meditate for one minute. One secret of motivation is that getting started can be 90% of the battle. Once you’ve begun, then you’ll probably keep going well beyond that minimum daily target.
- Value Quantity Over Quality. This is about valuing continuous output over perfectionism. A famous writer once said his secret to success was to write 500 poor quality words every day. Of course, the secret was that by keeping his daily expectations low and writing every day, the writer produced a lot of very good writing over the long term.
Add More Steps to Bad Habits. Can you add some friction that makes it harder for you to do bad habits? Maybe add more steps in the process. For example, if someone was trying to eat healthier, then they may avoid keeping unhealthy snacks anywhere in their house. They would be forced to go out of the house and buy some snacks. And that’s probably too much work!
8. Rewards: Immediately reinforce good habits and punish bad ones
A reward is what we get for doing a habit, such as money, social approval, pleasure, etc. Building positive habits is challenging because the human brain has been designed to be more motivated by immediate gratification. On the other hand, good habit are often about long-term payoffs.
- Create Instant Rewards or Punishments. As we’ve talked about before, this is about connecting something you like with a good habit. You can also set up a painful punishment for bad habits. For example, donate $5 to a charity you hate when you miss a day at the gym.
- Set Up Social Accountability. Find a friend that is also on the journey of personal development. Daily or weekly, update each other about your recent activities. The simple knowledge that someone else you respect will know about your performance can be powerful motivation to keep up a good habit.
- Visually Track Your Progress. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld became incredibly successful through doing this. He would write one joke every day, mark a big satisfying X on his calendar, and try to keep this “chain” of X’s going for as many days as possible.
9. Motivation is overrated: environment matters more
Real estate is all about location, location, location. Well, habits are all about environment, environment, environment. The goal is to design your life and surroundings in a way that the cues of your good habits are visible (think of the 1st Law) and doing the right thing is the easiest option (think of the 3rd Law).
It’s naive to think you can rely only on discipline, motivation and willpower. That might work for a little while, but it is not sustainable in the long term.
- Want to start eating more fruit? Have a bowl of your favourite fruit on the kitchen counter (→ visible)
- Want to start doing yoga every morning? Lay down your yoga mat right next to your bed and have workout clothes ready (→ visible and easy)
- Want to stop eating snacks and crisps every day? Don’t have it in your house (→ invisible)
- Want to stop grabbing your phone first thing in the morning? Charge your phone outside of your bedroom (→ invisible and difficult)
10. Curb Your Enthusiasm
There are two concepts in the book that particularly resonated with me. Whenever I would try to do something new, I would set my goals and expectations very high from the start, making it almost impossible to keep it up on a daily basis. Rationally I understood that this was causing me to fail, but excitement would always take over and I’d end up trying to do too much too soon.
James discusses two strategies to help with that:
- The 2-minutes Rule
Whenever you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy.
- The Goldilocks Rule
Humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right. When you’re starting a new habit, you need to avoid getting carried away and setting insanely high targets or expectations. Start small and allow the habit to get established. Build up slowly. These little improvements and new challenges will keep you engaged and motivated.